This is a snapshot in time of the productivity system I use: what it is, where it came from, and where it might go.
For me, productivity is not about squeezing work out of every minute in a day, but using time deliberately. When I’m with friends, I want to just focus on enjoying time with people I care about. When I’m working on a project, I want to be productive and not distracted, as that will lead to the project bleeding into other areas of my life. Think of this as a first draft of a system to help keep my life on track and moving intentionally towards goals, rather than wistfully following whatever breeze blows through. Theoretically by writing these snapshots, it will help me understand what I want out of it and reflect on what pieces aren’t working. In the coming months I fully expect to have major shifts in the tools and habits comprising the rickety structure I have in place. It felt important to understand what an ideal personalized setup might do, as well as what I have tried in the past, before crafting the overall system.
Aspects of an ideal system
What aspects does the ideal productivity system have? This is unique to my needs, for someone else it could look totally different.
- Stay healthy: eat good food & enough calories to sustain myself, exercise regularly (including stretching & cardio, not just lifting).
- Tasks should be clustered as much as possible so there is minimal context switching, that’s when I fall apart and just end up stressed without getting anything done. Batching lets me focus more on the task at hand and get into Deep Work, a concept I’ve been exploring.
- A single place I can collect all my notes & learnings on different topics, rather than relying on my known-to-be-fallible memory.
- Todo app which operates well on both mobile & desktop. Need to be able to quickly drop ideas, quotes, events, or tasks from anywhere and get back to what I was doing. Everything gets dropped into 1 place and then filtered later when I review it.
- Time set aside for learning & personal growth each week.
- Have a plan for time off that encourages exploration and quickly shipping, ideas have a shelf life.
- 80/20 harder in life, need to focus on the important things in life and not worry about the small potatoes.
- Time set aside for reflection, gratitude, and contemplation.
- Weekly reflection/summary of what I accomplished that moves me towards life goals and things that matter, cut out busyness cruft.
- Have a chore/upkeep chart for my personal health & living space, otherwise I lose track of important stuff, much like I lose track of long-term goals.
- Setting aside more time for friends & family.
- Take life less seriously, in a blink it can all be gone. Enjoy it.
What it evolved from
I have “tried” many different approaches over the years, but oftentimes it just led to a new format for how my tasks showed up and no change in my ability to finish. Everything I’ve tried has been plagued with a lack of consistency, poor prioritization, and context switching which made it difficult to make real progress. At one point I had post-its covering my entire desk, in some spots with multiple layers. Obviously, a forest worth of post-it notes wasn’t working so hot, so this then was converted into Trello boards with 10,000 things. Also not a functional system. My various attempts all led to the same spot: shuffling around tasks which didn’t matter and never got done.
At different times I have tried schedule/time-based productivity systems like James Maa’s Guide, but when I made my schedules it was always too strict, and I didn’t have the discipline to say not to distractions and actually follow it. Time blocking does seem to be a more successful approach, I just haven’t mastered it yet. With my new system I’m aiming to improve prioritization most of all. Jocko calls it Prioritize & Execute, though I’ve seen the concept come up across many places. Solve the most important problem first, and don’t do anything else until it’s done.
“There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all” - Some famous person
These notes a rough priority order of the pieces I have currently in place.
- Life Goals tracker & meetings- Until recently I didn’t really have a functional way to track larger goals in my life, and because of this I have spent years living with the same goals without making any progress. At the suggestion of a couple friends, we started meeting once a week to help each other focus on the long term. As a part of this, we started using spreadsheets & eventually Tara.ai to track the concrete actions we would take towards long term goals. Having a regular reminder of the things you want to accomplish in life is incredibly powerful. While having a separate app increases the complexity of my system, it helps by keeping it separate from the mundane tasks. When I switch between apps, my brain clicks into a different mode. Environment is powerful for the human brain.
- Waking up early - Before I go farther, I’m not saying get 4 hours of sleep every night. I’ve found for me personally, I am most effective in the mornings. I used to plan out important work at night, and so I’d stay up late, usually get distracted, then wake up the next day mad at myself for not getting what I wanted done and also feel crappy.
- Staying healthy. I schedule time to workout a few days a week, and am in the process of growing a rotating set of meals I can make on default when I don’t have any ideas for the week. I also have as a part of my schedule winding down before bed & leaving enough time for a good nights sleep. There’s so much Hustle Porn out there telling you to stay up all night to work on your goals or you’re not trying, but I don’t buy it. I waste a lot of time every day by not prioritizing the important pieces of my life and just wandering around the internet instead, it seems like a much better target to pull hours from than missing out an incredibly important piece of your health.
- Phone is on Do Not Disturb for the majority of the time. Very few notifications signal anything truly important in my life, and there are settings options so your contacts can still ring through. Very little reason not to set this in place. Sometimes I’ll even hide it so I forget it exists, then I don’t try to check it.
- Email is a constant distraction. I thought I was immune to this because at my job, I almost never get important emails from people. Same thing at home. Yet somehow, I constantly am checking what’s coming into my inbox to see if there’s anything interesting. This becomes a problem since I subscribe to a lot of interesting newsletters, and if I open even one, then I’m in the rabbit hole. I am now giving myself a single 15 min block in my day to run through and handle everything. Interesting, but not important, emails get pushed into their own folder to be reviewed later.
- Knowledge Forest - got the idea from a guy on Twitter, but you build up a forest of concepts, each can have it’s own forest underneath it. I didn’t have a place to store life notes like this before, I used to only take notes in class-specific folders during school, so I missed out on all I was learning outside of my classes. There may be better alternatives, but I like this concept so far. I do it in Notion, but there are plenty of other ways you could go about it. I have also heard good things about the Second Brain method, though I haven’t investigated to know how similar it is to this Knowledge Forest approach.
- Chaos Inbox - New tasks, ideas, notes, deadlines all get dropped into the TickTick Inbox, though any to-do app would work. Once a week, I go through it and put things that are useful into their respective spots (ideas & notes → Knowledge Forest, tasks → Tasks).
- Default schedule that fills the majority of my time M-F. It sounds a bit overwhelming, but the idea isn’t to adhere to it and never be spontaneous. It gives you a framework so that if nothing comes up, you will have devoted time each week to things that are important to you. Be flexible, if friends want to hang out, don’t say “ah, but my schedule says no, can’t y’all”. No! Go have fun and enjoy your time with them. The schedule is just a baseline. It’s there to prevent you from wasting cognitive energy deciding what you should be doing, which often devolves into dicking around on your phone for hours instead.
- Pomodoros, focus sessions with breaks, for actually accomplishing work. I struggle with both getting started and dicking around on the internet, and also getting too deep into the weeds of tasks. I do 24 min work sessions with 4 min breaks between, though the amount of time you choose doesn’t matter all that much. It’s about having a small enough window you can force yourself to buckle down, long enough you can actually accomplish something, yet still short enough you don’t spend hours in the weeds of an idea. It helps you come to the surface and look at what you’re doing from a higher perspective. Oftentimes there’s an alternate route you couldn’t see while slashing through the jungle.
- Not To-Do list - Mine is relatively new, but it’s nice having a living document to make the things you don’t want to spend time on more visible. It’s easy to read “don’t check your phone so much” and never do anything about it, it’s different if you’re reminded regularly and can check how you’ve been doing.
I try to keep the number of tools involved limited so I don’t fall into the trap of spending more time on the system than actually doing the tasks I set out for myself. I can already feel some friction happening with this setup, so next snapshot will probably look different.
- Notion (Docs, notes, & more, it has replaced Google Docs for all my personal work)
- TickTick, 2 lists: Inbox & Tasks (Todo app)
- Tara.ai (Repurposed Agile software for tracking Big Goals, keeping it separate from TickTick because I often lose track of important, but not urgent, goals in the day-to-day tasks)
- Google Calendar (actively looking for a privacy-conscious alternative)
- Do Not Disturb settings on my phone
Room for Improvement
As I’ve mentioned multiple times, this is meant to be a living system that grows and changes with me in life. For now, there are a few things I already know are worth changing or experimenting with adopting.
- With the switch to remote work and Covid, I do a terrible job keeping up my social life. I don’t schedule video game time or calls with friends & family hardly ever, I just sit in my room “working on myself”. BORING.
- I don’t leave myself enough time to make enough food each week or healthy options. One week I’ll eat super healthy meal-prepped food, the next will be garbage I made in 10 minutes because I forgot about food until after it was time to eat.
- Life Admin & Chores - I don’t track chores like dentist visits, vacuuming the living room, etc. and so they get done haphazardly when I remember. I would prefer to have a very rough schedule of personal & environmental maintenance. I saw this referred to as Life Admin and I really liked that description. I am worried about adding another app to my life, which would make my system more complex. Can I fit these recurring tasks without specific due dates into my to-do app without overwhelming myself with arbitrary dates? I don’t want them to disrupt actual important stuff, just get handled when it’s convenient.
- Life lessons from a 50yr old kookie guy, could be valuable to learn from.
- An example of what I don’t want it to be, a life operating system in Notion. Maybe I’m just a hater, but it seems like so much energy going into just managing tasks.
- Get rid of more of the junk that clutters my life, physically and digitally. I have a bad tendency to be a digital hoarder, and occasionally it seeps into the real world as well (No, you will not find a use for those old shoelaces, throw them out!). Clutter in my life distracts from the important pieces, so I’d like to be regularly pruning the junk.
- Exploring a weekly calendar like Tweek to see if it helps take the burden off of each day figuring out what to do. Time-blocking and having a default schedule would also help, a few different paths to explore here.
- I already have a lot of information in Notion, I could track tasks in Notion instead of having TickTick & Tara. For now I am a fan of the separation though, also Notion is not a speedy app to open and add things to on my phone.
It will be exciting to watch my system evolve through the snapshots I take along the way, it has already come a long way from a desk covered in post-its. Maybe it will go back?? Until next time, kowabunga.